My kids have a little wooden nativity set that each year we assemble beneath our Christmas tree. This time of year, you see them everywhere—plastic ones illuminated in front yards, wooden ones set up in front of McDonald’s, some metal and wrapped in Christmas lights, others expensive porcelain or olive wood.
This year, nativity scenes even made the news being used by some churches to make political statements. Growing up, some of the Catholic churches in my home town were forced to bolt down their baby Jesus—stealing them having become the popular teenage seasonal prank.
That little scene is more than 2,000 years old, and although 2,000 years of nativity nostalgia have slowly evolved some details of the original scene, where else do we set up historical depictions from the First-Century world.
It’s easy, these nativities yanked out of their ancient time and set alongside our wrapped presents and busy shopping lines, to lose a sense of the nativity’s actual place. We often imagine Christ’s birth wrapped in darkness, only the light of that brilliant new star washing down over the family: Marry, Joseph, and Jesus, aglow in heavenly light. The scene more made for holiday cards with glitter than the actual complexity of First-Century life on the margins.
Like the Christmas song puts it, “Radiant beams from thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. A small town, but rich in history, and in Jesus’ day, probably home to a few hundred people. First-Century towns like Bethlehem were built tight, families often adding rooms to existing houses as their families grew. With the census underway, Bethlehem was more crowded than usual, crowded enough that Mary and Joseph found space with the animals, probably in a seller, cave space beneath the family’s house.
The place of Jesus’ birth alludes to how little attention was given to it; after all, the families of Bethlehem must have been busy. With relatives in town, there were grandkids to play with, meals to be fixed, extra bedding to pull out, and talk of life in every other part of Judea. An out of town Jewish girl about to give birth was hardly a thing to note. Mary and Joseph slipped into their place, most likely unnoticed by the others going about their business. Maybe a few hellos. Maybe a few “good to see you again.” But never a bending knee or word of worship.
It’s not hard to imagine what had caught the attention of Bethlehem—there was plenty to talk about. Jesus was not born into a historical blank space. That year had not been divinely chosen because nothing else significant was on the world’s calendar. Hardly, the world into which Jesus was born was fully occupied with power and politics—revolutions, collapses, impassioned arguments, rumors, and growing divisions.
The Gospel’s subtle references to these tumultuous times have become such a part of our reading that very little of these events still color our Christmas imagination. But the gospel writers make several significant historical references surrounding that first Christmas morning.
The Political Atmosphere of Jesus’ Birth
First, there was the most proponent name in the list, Caesar Augustus. For us, it’s an Imperial name indistinguishable from the rest, but in Jesus’s day, Augustus was a name plenty were talking about round Bethlehem dining room tables, just an earshot from Jesus’ manger. Augustus had risen to power less than thirty years ago, the soul victor of the massive Roman civil war sparked by the assassination of Julius Caesar. The war had produced legendary names like Brutus, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra. Surely, it was one of the most significant events in world history.
Augustus used the war to not only gain power but to reinvent Rome itself. He is remembered as the first Roman Emperor, having all but decimated the old Roman Senate. He was a man of vision and ruthless determination, and after the blood bath of eliminating his opposition, he ushered in an era, known by historians as the Pax Romana—the era of Roman peace. Peace earned by the sword and ensured by his legions.
The birth of Jesus intersects this monumental figure in the order of Caesar Augustus’s decree, “all the world should be registered.”
These censuses were extremely controversial in Israel because they were seen as an attempt to tighten control and inevitably raise more taxes. The jews saw the order as a political move in the wrong direction. There would eventually be several registrations taken of Judea, some before the rule of Quirinius, who is mentioned by Luke, and some during. The Jewish historian Josephus traces the Jewish revolt and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, all the way back to opposition to these registrations by Augustus.
The Jewish leadership, like the High Priest, were able to convince most of Jerusalem to participate, but more conservative regions like Galilee, where Jesus’ family was from, remained a hotbed for talk of revolt and opposition.
There is an interesting note in the Book of Acts when Gamaliel is the lone member of the Sanhedrin to recommend not persecuting the new Christians. He mentioned that maybe Jesus was a false leader like other revolutionary. He specifically named Theudas and Judas the Galilean who had led revolts against Rome and failed. We know for sure that Judas the Galilean lead his revolt from Galilee and in opposition to these very censuses we read about in Luke 2.
I know Christmas Eve is not typically a service to use as a history lesson, but I give you this history to hopefully make a point; Jesus was born into a world immersed and engrossed in politics, controversy, and hotly divided opinions. I’ve said nothing about the violence and insecurities of Herod the Great or the political divisions on how to handle Rome led in opposing directions by the Pharisees, and Sanhedrin, and Essences.
Politics at the Table
It’s not hard to imagine that night, a Jewish family whispering in the dim oil lit light of their Bethlehem home. One begins, “We are Jews. God is our emperor. Caesar Augustus is not our peace. And now he wants more money to pay for it.”
Another whispers back, “We should resist. I hear there is a man leading a rebellion near Galilee. Some say he may be the Messiah who will finally overthrow Rome.” Another family member pushes back. “It’s too risky. We still have the temple. I don’t want to risk losing that too.” Still, another, hearing mention of the temple becomes more frustrated, their voices now above a whisper. “The temple is as corrupt as Rome. We should leave while we can. There are priests in the desert who are practicing our faith as we all should.” In that day, politics and religion were topics no family could avoid, nor would they try.
But they find themselves at an impasse. What is this world with its kings and armies and taxes? What does it mean to follow God in it? Do you resist? Do you comply? Do you ignore everything and pretend?
They blew out their lamps and fell asleep, divided, yet with a mix of fear, uncertainty, frustration, and longing shared between them.
A few yards away, a baby is born and brakes the stillness with its first cry. What a world to be born into.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.”
And to the shepherds, heavy-eyed, watching sheep on the margins of town, suddenly an angel, and a word, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
“And this will be a sign for you..”
What will be the sign of this savior? What will be the sign of this new Lord? What is this good news and joy for all people? What is this revelation of God breaking into the darkness, into the silence?
“You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
At that very moment, somewhere in Rome, Caesar Augustus was probably plotting and signing more decrees. Pundits were weighing-in on clashes between the emperor and the Roman senate. In Galilee, rebels were also plotting and planning their resistance. They would wait no more. There was a nation to save. In Jerusalem, priests were trying to balance conflicts and keep their own positions of power. There was so much at stake.
And yet it would be this little nativity scene—young unknown first-time parents, poor bowing shepherds, a stone feeding trough holding an infant, and scrapes of cloth for swaddling—it would be this scene that was remembered.
Remember This Christmas
I’ll offer you only this, Christmas reminds us that God is with us, but not in the ways or places many would expect.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And I might add, for this Christmas, blessed are those wise enough to look for him, passing by kings and emperors and revolutions, to find him here, in this nativity. Because it is no easier for us to recognize him than it was for those of his own time.
The light of our Christmas Eve candles isn’t enough to burn away the complexity of our own time. There is just as much talk of power, and politics, and disagreement on how to handle them both. Such things matter, but maybe not as much as some others. Maybe not as much as this.
“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
I want to close with this Christmas poem from G. K. Chesterton.
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.
A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.
This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
I want to remind you tonight, far more is going on than the news finds reason to report. In fact, the headlines of Jesus’ world became nothing more than the historical footnotes surrounding his birth. Could it be true here as well.
It would be this baby by which history itself would pivot, the count of this Christmas, 2019, derived from that moment of his birth.
This is the ways of God. As Paul would put it, “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”
The kingdom of God is at hand. Here it is. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”